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Imprisonment of Sidney Lanier
About North Georgia

Lanier is so interwoven with thoughts of music and poetry that one ceases to remember he was a Confederate soldier, suffering the hardships of war and, more than that, the horrors and sufferings of prison life at Point Lookout, Maryland.

Just graduating from Oglethorpe University, near Milledgeville, he heard the tocsin of war calling him to the front and joined the Macon Volunteers, which became a part of the 2d Georgia Battalion, serving first at Norfolk. Lanier was a gifted flutist, and in those early picnic days, "gay days of mandolin and guitar and moonlight sallies on the James," Lanier with his flute was the joy of the occasions.

After participating in the Seven Days' Battles around Richmond and Malvern Hill, Lanier and his brother Clifford and two friends were transferred to the signal corps and attached to Major General French's command. The service as scouts along the James was dangerous and onerous; it was hard riding and required courage. The Virginia folk, when possible, had him as guest and were delighted with his flute songs. Lanier then sang on the flute as he did in after years with the quill.

In December, 1864, Lanier was assigned as signal officer to the blockade runner Anna. But his vessel was captured by the United States steamer Santiago de Cuba, and Lanier was carried to that dismal prison, Point Lookout, a damp and unhealthy spot. Damp prisons had a fascination for Federal commanders. Camp Morton was damp, and so was Johnson's Island. The guards at Point Lookout were negro soldiers; the tents old bell style; in each tent sixteen to twenty men. The floors were the damp ground, no planks or straw, no dry place to sleep on, no wood allowed for fire. The winds from Chesapeake Bay had full play. Such were the prison quarters of this man, so delicately framed. Here on that damp ground was laid the foundation of that malady which brought him to an early grave. He had concealed his flute in his coat sleeve, and it was his solace in prison and a joy to his fellow comrades.

Lanier suffered for rations, especially under the order for retaliatory measures. Dr. John A. Wyeth in his book, "With Saber and Scalpel," gives an account of the suffering of Confederate prisoners under the "retaliatory orders." Those "retaliatory orders" have a strange history. The Confederate government, having no medicines for the sick, offered as a free gift fifteen thousand of the emaciated Federal soldiers in Andersonville Prison as an act of charity, to save life, not to destroy it. Federal ships in November, 1864, came to Fort Pulaski and took away the fifteen thousand Federal prisoners, bringing, however, not a single old "Reb" to his home.

These fifteen thousand prisoners on arrival in the North were placed in groups and photographed. These pictures were in every paper and magazine and were exhibited from pulpits. The people were so aroused that they demanded "retaliatory" measures, and the War Department issued orders severe indeed. The rations, already limited, were cut to starving proportions. Ours was the most fatal gift recorded in history.

Lanier secured his release from that awful prison pen through some gold which a friend concealed in his mouth. He left prison emaciated to a skeleton. On his voyage to Fortress Monroe an incident occurred which was a fit climax to his terrible prison life and career as a soldier.

A Southern lady, an old friend, and her little daughter were on the same vessel which bore Lanier. By mere chance

they learned that Lanier was down in the hold of the boat dying. Permission was given to minister to his necessities. The lady had some brandy and quinine. She said: "I hastily took the flask of brandy and hastened down below, where we were led to the rude stalls provided for cattle, but now crowded with poor human beings. There in that horrible place dear Sidney Lanier lay wrapped in an old cotton quilt, his thin hands tightly clenched, his face drawn and pinched, his eyes fixed and staring, his poor body shivering as if in a spasm of pain. My little daughter, Lilla, fell at his side, kissing him and calling: 'Brother Sid, don't you know me? Don't you know your little sister?' But no recognition came, no response. I poured some brandy into a spoon and gave it to him. It gurgled down his throat—no effort to swallow. I repeated the stimulant several times before any sign of resuscitation. At last he turned his eyes slowly about until he saw Lilla, and he murmured: 'Am I dead? Is this Lilla? Is this heaven?' The colonel permitted us to take him to our cabin. I can see his fellow prisoners now as they crouched and assisted to pass him over their heads, for they were so packed that they could not make room to carry him through. Along over their heads they passed the poor, emaciated body, so shrunken with prison life and benumbed with cold. We got him into clean blankets, but he was so nearly frozen that he could not endure the pain from the fire. We gave him more brandy and hot soup, and he lay quiet until after midnight. Then he aroused and asked for his flute and began playing As he played the first few notes you should have heard the yell of joy that came up from his shivering and wretched comrades down below. The flute notes told the story that their comrade was alive and could touch his flute into song. O that tender, soft music! Can we ever forget it? The colonel and I and Lilla sat there weeping. The soft, gentle music overcame us; and as he strengthened, the strains of music, responding to his warmth and hopes, came like liquid melody from his magic flute."

"Music is love in search of a word," is what Lanier used to say. On this occasion it was love translated into music, so happy over his good fortune to find Lilla and her mother, who rescued him as by a miracle.

He reached home from prison, arriving in Macon on March IS, 1865. Then, like all returning soldiers, he began that battle, seeking something to do. Of his trials and vexations, each day his malady making deeper inroads on his vital powers, there is no use now to speak. Of these the world knows. But his prison life has been forgotten.

O those hard "retaliatory measures" ordered by popular demand, under misapprehension, how many fell victims to those measures! What a fatal gift was our fifteen thousand emaciates 1 We did it to save life. Fifteen thousand Confederates fell victims to this fatal gift. We did it to save life; the retaliatory orders were issued to destroy life. How providential that on the same vessel with Lanier were Lilla and her mother and that flask of brandy 1

"So he, Heaven-taught in his large-heartedness,
Smiled with his spirit eyes athwart the veil
That human loves too oft keep closely drawn.
So hearts leaped up to breathe his freer atmosphere,
And eyes smiled truer for his radiance clear,
And souls grew loftier when his teachings fell,
And all gave love.
Aye, the patience and the smile
Which glossed his pain; the courtesy;
The sweet, quaint thoughts which gave his poems birth!"

Editor's notes

Tocsin - a signal or bell
Point Lookout - A notorious prison camp in Maryland. Overcrowding was a major problem after 1863.


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